I’ve always been very open with most aspects of who I am. I’ve been forthright and direct about several issues that others might not choose to share in so public a forum. What I’m about to present causes even me to feel frequently exposed and utterly naked. Few of it sits especially well with me, but I’ve chosen to write about it anyway.
Honesty is usually my stock in trade, but I know how easily it is to be misunderstood on this particular topic. Even the truth doesn’t adequately convey the way I feel, or how an outside observer might conceive of me. To follow is a description of one of the most difficult, confounding parts of myself. If even I can’t understand it, I imagine it might be close to incomprehensible for the average person.
In fifth grade, my class was shown the film Freaky Friday. Watching a movie was usually an end-of-the week reward for having worked hard. In it, a mother and daughter inexplicably switch bodies. The very thought of such a thing accidentally happening to me created a near-panic attack. I left the room immediately and sat outside the classroom, alone by myself.
Teachers and aides weren’t exactly sure why I’d chosen to leave. They checked on me periodically, concern in their eyes. My eyes focused ahead of me, I sat in silence while strange feelings washed over me. Had I been asked to explain myself, I would not have been able to do it. Part of it could be explained away by profound terror.
My greatest fear was that of being placed in a situation in which I was not in control and could not escape. Anxiety disorders, by their very nature, place one at the mercy of the illness.
That would have been easy enough to vocalize, even with my limited comprehension of what had yet to be formally diagnosed. Something else was present too. Back then, I didn’t yet have words and concepts at the ready to describe it. I already felt distanced and separated from those my own age. Before the invention and dominance of the internet, the library was my solace. It was there that I learned who I was.
I wasn’t used to being unable to dig and discover terminology for how I felt. Provided I was brave enough to seek information, I could usually find it. In this situation, nothing appeared in all of my searching. I didn’t really know where to go about scouring for it. Knowledge put my worries at rest, at least for the short term.
When I was 12 or 13, I felt a strong, compelling desire to dress in opposite-gender clothing. When the coast was clear, I would sneak into the laundry room. Upon arrival, I’d pluck an article or two of one of my sister’s or mother’s clothing from a basket. Women’s clothing often fit much differently than my own.
Whatever I tried on always fit me queerly, because it had never been designed for someone with dimensions like mine. The image that stared back at me from the mirror was arresting and different, for sure. It was equal parts shameful and comforting. I could never separate the two, even with extra mental effort. I’ve never done well with secrets, but here was a big one. I knew I couldn’t tell anyone.
With disgust, I took off the borrowed clothes and put them back where I’d found them. This was my own private game of guilty dress-up. Like a criminal wiping clean the fingerprints from a crime scene, I meticulously folded and returned the garments exactly where I’d found them. Before I indulged myself, I’d memorized precisely how and where each article had been situated. Being discovered would have been awful, which is why I made every attempt to conceal what I’d been doing.
I swore to myself that I’d never do such a thing ever again. But I couldn’t stop the process, regardless of how resolute I was to put it aside forever. The drive to cross-dress was intense and powerful. At first thinking it as some kind of horrible addiction, I believed that it had complete control over me. Deliberate forgetfulness had been a learned response to trauma that my brain had come to rely upon. I began to disassociate my behavior, almost to the point of denial.
In my early twenties, I heard a talk presented by a same-sex male couple who had been raised in a homophobic religious environment. While in their teens, both of them initiated what had first seemed to be a harmless, innocent friendship. Before long, it expanded to include sexual exploration.
A romantic relationship came next, though it was never directly acknowledged, for obvious reasons. The two would fool around, then immediately fall to their knees in submission to God. They’d pray together for forgiveness for having done such an inexcusable thing. Somehow, even with crushing guilt and shame, they never put a lid on their attractions.
I’d at least heard about transvestism, mostly because of its ability to shock. Men who wore women’s clothing were usually nothing more than a proven laugh line. Transgender, however, was a topic of which I was totally uninformed. I knew that envisioning myself as a woman wasn’t a sexual fantasy. It satisfied a part of me that my socialization as a man could not provide.
My sexual orientation, along with my gender identification, have been constant sources of confusion and contradiction. Many times, I observe a woman walking down the street and feel severely jealous that I can’t be female myself. But neither do I romanticize womanhood without conceiving of it in its proper context.
Being female has its own automatic societal limitations. I recognize that I benefit from the privilege that being born male provides, even with reform movements and years of consciousness-raising. I’ve always been reluctant to give it up.
And even if I were to undergo transition, I’m not sure I’d ever really see myself as authentically female. One can undergo surgery, start taking hormones, and even take classes about how to plausibly pass. All of these, of course, are for the sake of everyone else. They take time, money, effort, and action.
I know, based on previous exploration, that learning female mannerisms would be difficult for me. Even though I may have a strained relationship with masculinity, I recognize myself as at least partially male underneath it all. I’m somewhere in the middle, though I do wish I fit more easily into one box or another.
Absolutes are few along the LGBT continuum. Lesbian friends of mine have noted their primary attraction to women, though adding, as a slightly guilty afterthought, that sometimes they find men appealing. In Kinsey’s scale, I am a 3, equally attracted to men and women, though I’m deliberately selective with men. I’m trying to accept the messiness of it all and am farther along than I used to be.
I have listened, finally, to the persistence of gender nonconformity. Daily, I integrate aspects of female dress as I prepare for another day. Most of these I keep secret because I don’t wish to be policed by anyone who can’t and wouldn’t understand. I make concessions because I’d like to avoid stares and looks of disapproval whenever possible.
For example, I’d keep my toenails painted, but I know I’d be treated very differently at the gym. I shower and undress in front of other men several times a week. Sometimes the non-verbal criticism is worse than the occasional rude remark.
For a time, I used to pay extra for regular pedicures and to have polish applied to my toes. Being the one man in the chair leaves no room to hide. The windows to the business directly faced the sprawling corridors of an indoor shopping mall. Shoppers on their way to other place were routinely taken aback by me. I was often viewed by passersby to the store as though there was something wrong with what I was doing.
Most of the time I’m comfortable with myself, but I know that full acceptance will take a while longer. Genderqueer is the preferred term I’d use to define myself, but the day to day application of the the phrase is limited. Only a select few people, usually highly educated and progressively-minded, even know what it means. It’s always unfortunate when nomenclature and terminology don’t make their way down the ladder to the majority of humanity.
I know for a fact that there are gender non-conforming people struggling with their identity at this moment. I also know that several of them live in communities that hold societal expectations which are directly contradictory to who they are as individuals. When we can make sufficient inroads together, we may all be someday free. Gender is a puzzling concept to most of us, transgender or cisgender. I, for one, may never completely wrap my head even 10% of it, but I am always thankful for one less guilt trip.